Awakening Democracy Through Public Work: Pedagogies of Empowerment
Harry C. Boyte with Marie Ström, Isak Tranvik, Tami Moore, Susan O’Connor, and Donna Patterson

For decades, political theorist Harry Boyte has been a pioneer of community-level, direct democracy. His central thesis is that democracy is “public work,” “sustained, uncoerced effort by a mix of people who create things of lasting civic or public significance.” This perspective invites people of all walks of life and professions to consider how, in their daily routines, they can contribute to a stronger, more supportive, and more participatory social environment. Boyte describes his view of citizenship as “an approach . . . in which citizens are co-creators, builders of the common world, not simply voters and volunteers who fit into that world or protestors who oppose it.” He has been honing these ideas since his college days, when he was field secretary to Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and encountered the southern citizenship schools that arose from the civil rights movement. In his new book, Awakening Democracy Through Public Work, Boyte, now a senior scholar, offers a mature introduction to his thinking on citizen action, social change, and civic education.

Civics education rarely teaches that ground-level citizen action is integral to having healthy communities. Democracy is something that happens elsewhere, and only to adults.

Central to Awakening Democracy Through Public Work is Boyte’s belief that education’s most important role is to teach children and young adults how to be good citizens. Boyte focuses in particular on the Public Achievement program he and his co-authors have developed into an international network. (The book is dedicated to Boyte’s colleague Dennis Donovan, whose school, St. Bernard’s Elementary School, was the first experimental site for Public Achievement.) Most U.S. public schools used to offer some basic training in citizenship through civics courses that taught political history and basic facts about democratic institutions and the Constitution. Increasingly these programs, meager as they were, have been jettisoned by schools to make more space for STEM and teach-to-the-test curricula—but even when such basic civics education is still offered, it rarely seeks to convey the importance of ground-level citizen action to the functioning of healthy communities and institutions. Democracy is something that happens elsewhere, and only to adults.

Boyte’s Public Achievement program for K–12 youth adopts a very different model. In it, “teams of young people . . . work over the school year on issues they choose. Their issues must be legal, tackled nonviolently, and make a public contribution.” At the beginning of the year, students hold an “issues convention” to discuss and prioritize the problems people most want to address during the year; then they form teams to work on them. Though the youth are coached by college students affiliated with Public Achievement, the priorities, strategies, and work are their own. Opportunities to hold positions of real responsibility—or for that matter fail (in ways that are instructive)—are therefore significantly greater than in service-learning programs that offer students ready-made volunteer roles. As Boyte puts it, “In Public Achievement, young people are conceived as co-creators, citizens today, not simply citizens-in-waiting. They help to build democracy in their schools, neighborhoods, and society.”

My favorite example of Public Achievement in the book comes from a Minneapolis public school.

One team of eight boys, including Mexican immigrants, Native Americans, and European Americans, expressed anger at the state of their bathroom. The stalls had no doors. Toilet paper and other supplies were missing. The walls were covered with obscenities. They named themselves “the Bathroom Busters” and decided to remedy the mess. Two coaches helped them to understand the issue in public terms larger than the bathroom itself. They decided, after discussion, that the issue was twofold: students’ disrespect for common property and the school system’s disrespect for students.

In taking on this problem, the team had to learn how to deal with school bureaucracy, wrangle funding from district offices, gain the assent of union representatives—in short, do politics. But they also had to learn how to work with students who were not interested in Public Achievement. Though the bathrooms were fixed by the end of the year, the problems returned the next year as graffiti started showing up on the walls. So, the team started meeting with other kids in the school to develop a plan. What emerged was a mural created by the students for the bathroom walls, which remained graffiti free.

What I like so much about this story is not that it was a success but that it reveals what kids can contribute to the everyday functioning of a highly institutionalized domain such as an urban public school. There are always scarcities, differences of opinion, and hierarchies of power and authority, even in the best funded and most well-run organization. To learn how to deal with these in a constructive way should be the essence of democratic education. Notice, too, that a problem that could have easily been labeled a “disciplinary” or even “criminal” issue—and thus a police matter—was instead addressed by the students themselves, thus keeping their classmates clear of the criminal justice system. This is a self-taught lesson in how to create social order.

In Public Achievement programs, problems that would otherwise be labeled “disciplinary” or “criminal” issues are instead addressed by the students themselves, thus keeping their classmates clear of the criminal justice system.

One of the most important tools learned by students in a Public Achievement program is called “power mapping.” In power mapping, an issue is discussed by the group to determine who has a stake in it. Power mapping is a “relational practice,” notes Boyte, which “radically changes young people’s perception of ‘power.’ Rather than seeing power only as an abstract category (‘others have power; we are powerless’), participants discover many kinds of power, many different interests around any question, and many potential ways to go about tackling a problem.” Another tool taught in the program is called “public evaluation,” in which students debrief at the end of a team meeting to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and whether people are accomplishing tasks they have set out for themselves—a process of learning how to be accountable to others. In addition to these basic tools, Public Achievement is marked by a fundamental commitment to self-direction: “Teams usually begin their work by setting their own rules. . . . They give their teams names. . . . They develop mission statements. They designate and rotate roles—moderator, timekeeper, notetaker, evaluation leader, and others.” Unfortunately, schools often subtly—or not so subtly—discourage autonomy, equality, and voice; Public Achievement, by contrast, thrives on these.

These are, of course, common practices in the worlds of community organizing and social movements. But public work differs from these other forms of citizen action. Boyte points out that social movements can be successful at mobilizing dissent and opposition while failing to develop the kinds of common interests and civic skills that can sustain collective efforts over time. A kind of “reductionist” and “Manichean politics” can emerge that “polarizes civic life, objectifies and abstracts ‘the enemy,’ erodes citizenship, communicates that politics is warfare, and narrows government to a ‘target’ for gaining resources, not a partner in problem solving.” Likewise, local community organizing efforts can sometimes neglect the role of non-local sources of power in blocking progress on solutions. Public work in this way is both hybrid and innovative, building on core aspects of historical organizing and social movement efforts while seeking broader impact than the former and deeper roots than the latter.

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At a time of great concern about the health of even established democracies, public work thinking offers a compelling diagnosis. Along with the blustering autocrats who are the obvious foes of democratic institutions, there is a more subtle and pervasive threat: a systemic way of thinking about politics and policy that places a premium on distance, expertise, and cool professionalism. Where the autocrat threatens democracy loudly, caging dissidents and investigating critics, the technocrat threatens it more quietly, creating the impression that the big problems facing society ought to be left to the people with degrees from the best schools. Boyte writes:

Technocracy, control by experts, is accelerated by the efficiency principle and the digital revolution. It reifies settings that once served as sources of civic learning, turning not only schools but also congregations, local businesses, unions, nonprofits, and government agencies into service delivery operations. This dynamic renders civic life an off-hours activity in civil society, usually through volunteering or community service, which are experienced as oases of civic idealism and decency in a degraded world. A great challenge of our time is to develop a politics to enlist the broad energies of all citizen to address our multiplying challenges.

If, as some suggest, it is anger at elites and the feeling of being shut out of meaningful decision-making that provide the greatest fuel for authoritarian politics, then the public work strategy of collective engagement and empowerment—beginning with the youngest citizens—may be the single best remedy.

A key element of technocracy is the cultural capital generated by university credentialing and networks, and Boyte makes clear that colleges and universities have a critical role in awakening democracy. Public work thinking is a deep challenge to academic business as usual because no stand-alone center or program for encouraging “community engagement” will suffice. What is needed is a dramatic shift away from seeing citizenship as some kind of moral bonus, something to be done in the off-hours. This calls not so much for a shift in professional ethics as for a shift in practices: the current generation of academics must become sensitive to the debilitating effects of the technocratic world they have helped reproduce. They must also embrace the public dimensions of fields such as law enforcement, education, and health through horizontal collaborative relations with non-specialists. Augsburg University’s nursing program, for example, encourages that nurses pursue “meaningful interaction with ‘people living on the margins’” in the course of fulfilling their medical duties.

Boyte’s vision for democratic renewal offers compelling remedies to the pervasive sense of dispossession felt by citizens across the ideological spectrum.

Boyte’s vision for democratic renewal is invigorating, even as it raises important practical concerns. First is the chronic issue of how to embed practices such as those taught by Public Achievement into ongoing institutional environments without succumbing to tick-the-box bureaucracy. The program’s commitment to student autonomy helps here, but it will be good to learn more over time about how that commitment can be institutionalized in school systems without turning rigid. Second, it is no small challenge that the world of direct democracy is so distant from the world of finance capital. Many problems that harm local communities are not problems that can be realistically solved at the local level, but having an impact on politics at the federal, state, or even city level is increasingly difficult without deep pockets. Third, Boyte highlights mostly positive stories, but grassroots citizen politics can sometimes reject distant and aloof yet also sensible and useful expertise. Local, sometimes violent, conflicts over federal land management in the West come to mind. Do we have to take the good public work along with the bad for the sake of general democratic renewal? It is especially useful here for civic studies scholars to differentiate efforts that welcome in diverse forms of knowledge—working with rather than against professionals, for example—from those that shield themselves from critique.

Regardless, Awakening Democracy Through Public Work offers compelling remedies to the pervasive sense of dispossession felt by citizens across the ideological spectrum—the sense that “our” institutions and politics do not have a meaningful place for us, that they move along without our help. We are informed and scolded by intellectuals, mobilized and asked for our vote or donations, but we are not treated as citizens who share load-bearing responsibility for law, policy, or community development. Boyte’s theory of public work and his practical Public Achievement program are critical for thinking about how institutions, politics, and public life might be recaptured in nonviolent, non-autocratic ways.